California Fire Aviation Chief Says Military Choppers Weren't Ready to Join Firefight

A high-ranking California fire official speaking with late Friday contradicted federal lawmakers who criticized the efforts to fight the San Diego-area wildfires, saying that there is no evidence so far that Marine pilots who would have flown helicopters earlier this week were properly trained and equipped to join the mission at the time.

Reps. Darrell Issa, Duncan Hunter and Brian Bilbray — all California Republicans — this week blasted a California policy that requires a "military helicopter manager" to sit aboard flights of military helicopters that are joining state firefighting efforts.

Specifically, an Issa spokesman told earlier Friday, eight Marine helicopters sat idle until late Tuesday, when the three congressmnn pushed through a deal that allowed Defense Department officials to sidestep the state policy, and put the helicopters in the air. Earlier, The Associated Press reported that up to 19 Navy and Marine helicopters were ready to fly, some as early as Sunday.

Michael Padilla, chief of aviation for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — or Cal-Fire — disputed the lawmakers' assertion in a telephone interview.

Padilla said anyone saying those helicopters were sidelined by the policy alone are "absolutely wrong. Those aircraft could have been used had they had properly trained crews" and proper equipment, including radio systems compatible with ones used by California fire agencies.

"They represented a hazard to themselves and to the rest of the people" fighting the fires, Padilla said.

Padilla — whose command includes managing all the helicopters and planes for Cal-Fire, as well as coordinating outside resources like military helicopters — said he could not answer questions yet about precisely when certain helicopters were made available and when they were allowed to fly because it is the subject of an ongoing review.

But he backed the Cal-Fire incident commander's decision that kept the Marine helicopters, and possibly others, from flying.

"They were the right decisions. They continue to be the right decisions. Nobody made a mistake. Nobody did anything wrong," Padilla said.

Padilla noted that Marine units based in California have not participated in training operations in recent years, while Navy units have. He said the Navy units were available and ready to fly when the fires ratcheted up last weekend.

Also, because the Marine units had not trained with Cal-Fire, there weren't military helicopter mangers ready to join them, whereas they were ready to join other units the fire service has trained with.

Padilla, who said he has both military and firefighting flying experience in addition to his management duties, said that high winds, smoke conditions and the usual chaos that surrounds an emergency response requires more than just military pilot training. He said that a number of flight safety precautions have been added to the California fire plan — such as flight procedure, altitude and communication methods — as a result of past in-air fatal collisions.

"When you try to coordinate a large number of aircraft in a complex situation, it's highly hazardous. ... We're not going to endanger our people to put a bunch of untrained, imporoperly equipped people" in the air, Padilla said.

Padilla also expressed some irritation at the focus on the military helicopter manager policy — which he suggested might be political — while the emergency response was ongoing.

"We want to get it (the response) better, too," he said, but "we would like to wait until after the crisis is over."

Another issue kept military C-130 cargo planes out of the firefight until later in the week.

The California National Guard had no operating C-130s that were properly outfitted with cargo holds to carry chemical fire-suppressants. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., has criticized the Pentagon for the problems, and the U.S. Northern Command chief, Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, told the AP he would push harder to retrofit more planes to correct the problem.

The military provided five C-130s — each with a 3,000 gallon liquid capacity — on Wednesday, and six now are serving in California.